The Limited Geopolitical Clout of Israeli Natural Gas

4 MINS READApr 2, 2013 | 10:00 GMT
The Tamar natural gas drilling platform on March 28
Albatross via Getty Images

The start of natural gas production at a recently discovered field has raised hopes of energy independence in Israel, but few effects of the newfound resources will be felt outside Israeli borders. On March 30, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that natural gas had begun flowing to Israel from Tamar, a field located roughly 90 kilometers (50 miles) off Israel's northern coast. Exactly how much natural gas is being pumped from Tamar is unclear. But if projections are realized, the Tamar field could make Israeli access to energy more secure and stable than at any other point in the country's modern history.

The Israeli Energy and Water Resources Ministry estimates that Tamar could meet between 50 percent and 80 percent of the country's natural gas needs over the next decade. The field may also allow Israel to incentivize additional domestic energy production and reduce the country's use of coal and fuel oil in sectors where demand overlaps with natural gas, such as power generation. However, Israel's ability to leverage its energy assets to affect the policies of neighboring countries or resolve the myriad challenges it faces on its borders will be constrained by the region's enduring geopolitical realities.

Israel estimates that its annual consumption of natural gas will increase to 8.5 billion cubic meters in 2013 and continue to rise for the foreseeable future. In recent years, the country has depended on two major sources of natural gas: In 2005, a deal was brokered through the East Mediterranean Gas Company, an Egyptian-Israeli natural gas consortium, for Egypt to supply Israel with approximately 40 percent of its natural gas needs for the next 20 years, or roughly 1.7 billion cubic meters per year. (The agreement was later increased to 2.1 billion cubic meters per year).

But Israel's energy partnership with Egypt has been beset with problems. Egypt, a net exporter of natural gas facing its own problems with rising domestic demand, reportedly negotiated a rate increase in 2008, and since the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011, the subsequent strain on Egyptian-Israeli relations has curtailed Israeli imports from Egypt. Moreover, militants in the Sinai Peninsula have frequently targeted the natural gas pipeline that connects the two countries, occasionally shutting down flows for weeks at a time. In April 2012, Egypt's state-owned natural gas company announced that it would pull out of the 2005 agreement, and the Israel Electric Corporation formally followed suit on March 25.

Tamar's Promise

For the remaining 60 percent of its natural gas needs, Israel has relied on production from Mari B, a domestic reservoir in the Yam Tethys field located off the coast of Ashdod. Mari B's reserves, however, have depleted faster than expected. In response, Israel in recent months has turned to stopgap measures such as expediting production at smaller natural gas fields nearby, including Noa and Pinnacle. The country has also increased its use of diesel and fuel oil for electricity production.

Moreover, Israel must overcome myriad technical and geopolitical hurdles before exporting natural gas from Tamar and Leviathan is even possible. The easiest way for Israel to sell the resource abroad would be to build a pipeline running along the coasts of Lebanon and Syria and eventually reaching Turkey. But Lebanon and Syria are openly hostile to the idea. Even if they agreed, neither country has a government stable enough to secure such a project in perpetuity. Syria is engulfed in conflict, and violence from the civil war has been spilling across the border into Lebanon more frequently.

In 2010, Israel signed an agreement with Cyprus recognizing the island's claims to certain natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean — a deal that raised the possibility of future energy cooperation between the two countries. But Cyprus' major economic and political issues would limit its ability to build the technically advanced infrastructure needed in such a partnership. Meanwhile, geographic, technical and political issues would undermine energy cooperation between Israel and Turkey. Even Jordan, a country whose own serious energy issues could be mollified somewhat by importing Israeli natural gas, would be hesitant to cooperate openly with Israel due to domestic political concerns.

The launch of natural gas production at Tamar is still welcome news for Israel and will likely make the country less dependent on neighboring countries and foreign partners for energy. The field will have a positive effect on Israel's economy and, considering the mounting challenges facing the country, will lessen one area of concern for the Israelis. But the tangible effects of production at Tamar on the broader region will be subtle at best. Israel's estimated reserves are relatively small compared to other natural gas fields in the region. The region's pervasive political instability will hamper Israel's ability to navigate the major infrastructural and political obstacles that prevent it from exporting natural gas. And the type of development needed to make fields such as Tamar relevant outside Israel's domestic market is unlikely, thus blunting Tamar's possible geopolitical impact.

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